Review - "Safe House" (Solid Technical Work Spoiled By Lack Of Originality & Utter Predictability)

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by Tambay A. Obenson
February 10, 2012 1:16 PM
4 Comments
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I posted this earlier in the week after I attended a screening of it; figured I'd post again today, since the film is now officially in general release:

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You’ve seen it all before in one form or another, in pieces or as a whole; rogue government operative (who “tested off the charts” of course) carrying secrets that could end the careers of many of his comrades still working within (or I should say manipulating) the system (CIA, FBI, MI6, La-Di-Dah, Dum-Di-Dum); naturally he’s a wanted man – ideally, they’d prefer his rotting carcass hand delivered to them, but they’ll take him however they can get him.

But thanks to the interference and determination of a young upstart agent with much to prove (he wants a promotion from his boring *desk job* to active duty), plans are continually shifting, bodies pile up, there’s the oh-so predictable double-cross/twist/whatever you want to call it when it’s revealed which one of the agency *insiders* is actually responsible for facilitating much of the mayhem (gun fights, fist fights, car chases, explosions, etc, etc, etc) that’s prevalent throughout the film.

You’ll find a collection of scenes from a number of what I’d call spy thrillers released over the last 50 years, starting with the Bourne series (and working your way backwards). There’s even a *war room* with dozens of screens, each workstation manned by some geek minion with thick-framed specs, tapping away at keys as the higher-ups pace around the room, barking out orders, or arguing amongst themselves as to what their next course of action should be, with all their efforts focused on locating the whereabouts of their rogue agent (who used to be pals with some of them) and/or the kid who’s taken it upon himself to “bring him in,” by any means necessary.

I couldn’t help but think of *war room* scenes between Joan Allen and David Strathairn in the last 2 Bourne movies, replaced by Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson in Safe House, with Sam Shepherd as the gruff almighty.

Whether the kid has *turned* becomes a concern, after he willingly disobeys orders from his superiors about midway through the film to essentially back off and let them “take it from here.” And of course he doesn’t! He has principles, morals; he wants to do what’s right. He’s a good guy who loves his girlfriend very much, even though he lies to her about what he does for a living, and eventually has to “let her go” as instructed by his older, wiser (black) *teacher* because “people like us can’t have normal lives and relationships,” and he was also “just like him” when he was his age and first started out at a desk job as an agent, all bright-eyed and ambitious, though also naïve to how shit really works.

And by the end of the film, the lesson is over, the student has of course learned, as demonstrated by one final fatal act that forces him to choose and act quickly; he gets an on-the-job education that 20 years in CIA school wouldn’t afford him.

So yes, it’s utterly predictable stuff, in case you haven’t already figured that out by now :)

And that’s actually really unfortunate because the rest of the film is solid! A stellar cast of actors - veterans, upstarts and everything between, whose names collectively on any other film (as they are on Safe House) would make me sit up and pay attention; director Daniel Espinosa brings his Snabba Cash stylo (the 2010 Swedish thriller he directed that got Hollywood’s attention and the Safe House gig); think Paul Greengrass and his quasi-documentary-style of directing – the hand-held though steady camera, gritty images, stark portraiture, realistic performances from good actors, and more; the action is hard and fast and there’s an immediacy to it all that keeps you entertained for the most part. But it’s all spoiled by the lack of any anxiety that comes with anticipating what may or may not happen next, because you already know. You’re really hoping that formula doesn’t trump surprise, and that what you think is about to happen doesn’t, shaking up any comfort that you feel in your projections of the film’s direction.

Alas, no. Almost everything occurs exactly as you’d expect it to.

Boo-hoo. All that wonderful, confident technical work feels wasted. Film screening experience ruined.

But some of you will be entertained enough by it that you’d be willing to overlook its weaknesses; or maybe you just wouldn’t notice them; or you wouldn’t care. Munch on your popcorn, gasp and guffaw at all the visual theatrics and smart-ass one-liners, and exit the theater feeling like you got your money’s worth – a 2-hour thrill ride of a film released during what should be the doldrums of the winter months. And by the time you’re back in your car, or on the subway train or bus, heading back home, you would have forgotten all about it.

Job done, says the studio that produced and released it. We got your money bitches!

I could go further, but I don’t think it’s worth it.

But for those expecting it to be the “Denzel Washington show,” I’ll advise you to go in with lowered expectations because he’s really a supporting character in this. This is Ryan Reynolds’ movie. Denzel’s the bigger name certainly and probably received a fatter paycheck; but Reynolds is the star of Safe House.

He gets the girl, kills the bad guy, and goes through a transformation. Call it a coming-of-age action movie, with Reynolds as protagonist about to go through a conversion, and Denzel being the key fulcrum of his psychological development and eventual change.

This is all established quite early on in the film when the pair have their first tussle – a battle in a moving vehicle that suggests Reynolds is himself a force to be reckoned with; despite Denzel’s character’s seniority in terms of years on the job and overall training and skill, the young nobody who spends much of his working life stationary, playing ping pong with walls, proves to be almost every bit the veteran’s equal.

Right!

I’m baffled at the fact that such an unoriginal script was a Black List project at one time (supposedly the list of the hottest unproduced scripts in any given year). When? In 1992?

Review aggregator site RottenTomatoes.com says 6 out of 10 critics (thus far) are negative on it; no surprise.

But it should open at number 1 this weekend, although Journey 2 (a family friendly DwayneThe RockJohnson fantasy flick) could give it a run.

I wonder if anyone in Journey 2 "tested off the charts" as well :)

Bah-humbug!

Trailer below:

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4 Comments

  • MsWilliamsWorld | February 10, 2012 9:18 PMReply

    I fell asleep on it at around the 20-min. mark; then, I woke up, gave it about another 5 mins, then left the theater.

  • Stars | February 10, 2012 9:16 PMReply

    I must admitt Tambay, I actually enjoyed this review very much. First of all, when you see the trailer - it sums up your review. LOL. Yes it's the Old movie star passing the torch to the new guard of movie stars particularly the young white movie star. This is "Training Day" but with Reynolds and as a rogue spy film. This is the new blueprint formula of what NOT TO DO in an action flick. Thanks for the review.

  • RENGER | February 10, 2012 2:22 PMReply

    Denzel is brillant in every movies and this latest one is no exception.

  • Suzan | February 10, 2012 2:12 PMReply

    I'll PASS. Thanks for the review. I did like Denzel in Unstoppable- he and Rosario Dawson. Maybe it's me but has Denzel jumped the shark? After Training Day has he really been in any good plots? Hated him as Alonzo and that over the top ending but the plot of TD was solid. American Gangster was horrible... even Idris was awful- maybe this new Pilot flick will put him back in the respected thespian role I'd like to see him in.

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